Online retailer Amazon is responsible for a massive amount of pollution, accounting for more planet-overheating gas pollution per year than many entire countries. And a new report in Business Insider details how the company produces an astonishing amount of pollution from an often-overlooked source: its data centers.
What are data centers?
Data centers are physical locations that store the computer hardware that much of our society relies on, including data storage and network equipment that power e-commerce, video streaming, and, more recently, artificial intelligence.
Amazon is in the process of developing $87 billion worth of data centers, Business Insider reported: “The featureless, warehouse-like structures are easy to miss on the sides of highways or tucked unassumingly amid suburban neighborhoods.”
Why do data centers cause so much pollution?
“[Data centers] consume quantities of power so vast that they have begun to tax entire energy grids and could exacerbate the climate crisis,” Business Insider wrote.
The report found that Amazon operates or is in the process of planning and building 102 data centers in northern Virginia alone. Together, the data centers require more energy to keep running than the entire city of Seattle.
Even worse, the need for all of this power is forcing energy companies to turn away from clean energy solutions such as wind and solar, as the infrastructure needed for those sources to operate cannot be scaled up quickly enough to meet the massive energy demands. Dominion Energy recently proposed canceling the retirement of dirty energy infrastructure and even building new gas-burning plants to meet the demand.
Is Amazon really trying to mitigate its pollution?
Although Amazon often touts itself as an environmentally responsible company, the facts tell a different story. Recently, the company backed out of a promise to make half of its shipments carbon neutral by 2030, drawing the ire of internet commenters — but little reaction from governments and regulators that continue to allow the company to do whatever it wants.
As far as the data centers go, Business Insider detailed how Amazon uses Renewable Energy Certificates to fudge its own environmental impact reports that it releases.
“RECs have a mixed track record and they have certainly been misused, and there has been greenwashing,” Ben Hertz-Shargel, an executive at the energy-research and consultancy firm Wood Mackenzie, told Business Insider. “Retiring a REC from two states over from two years ago and calling it offsetting my power consumption from yesterday is not an accurate representation of sustainability.”
While Amazon continues to make some gestures toward environmentalism with one hand — such as reducing the amount of plastic in its packaging and electrifying a small portion of its delivery fleet — on the other hand, it simultaneously destroys millions of unsold products, consumes entire cities’ worth of energy every day, and produces entire countries’ worth of planet-overheating gases every year.
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